I had never imagined that a novel like The Wildings would come out of India. After seeing shelves after shelves of predictably tragic literary fiction and badly written commercial fiction, I had given up the hope of ever seeing anything this vividly imaginative. The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy, however, shows me I can be optimistic: not only is it a beautifully produced book, but it also takes on a subject that few ‘serious’ writers in India would dare to explore: the lives of cats.
Yes, Dear Reader, Cats. If you, like me, are crazy about cats no matter how much they ignore you, then this is a book you want to read. And if you don’t like cats, I still think you should read this book, because you just might come to appreciate them and their talents a little more.
OK, the part about the talent needs to be scratched, because this is after all fiction. But how I wish it were true! All those times when I saw my cat sit in balcony and look outside – they make so much more sense now that I have read this book.
But I’m running ahead of myself. You need to know what this book is about. So, The Wildings is about a clan of cats living in the bylanes and ruins of Nizamuddin in Delhi. They live by a strict code of ethics all their own and they are all connected to each other through a strong, invisible web of scent and whisker transmissions. There’s Beraal, a beautiful black-and-white queen who is also a fierce fighter, Miao the wise Siamese who is the clan elder, Katar the strong and brave leader, Hulo the warrior and Southpaw, the curious kitten who can’t help but get into trouble. Other animals make appearances too, such as the deadly and powerful Kirri the mongoose, the brave little mouse Jethro Tail, a pair of squirrels called Aao and Jao and the cheels who rule the skies. Life in Nizamuddin is not luxurious, but it’s good, nonetheless. The cats survive catching prey like mice, rats and bandicoots and often forage through the rich leaving found in the midden heaps of the Bigfeet (humans), most of whom usually leave them alone. They wander the roofs at night and doze in the cool shade offered by trees.
This serenity is interrupted by the arrival of Mara, an orange kitten with monsoon green eyes. She is what is known as a ‘Sender’ – a cat who can transmit her thoughts to other cats and animals so powerfully that most of them see a projection of her in front of them. A Sender is a rarity, a cat who only appears when times are set to get tough and when the other cats need her the most. And Mara is the most powerful Sender to have ever appeared in Nizamuddin. A series of extraordinary events follow Mara’s arrival, such as encounters with tigers and a battle for survival against a crazed and bloodthirsty group of feral cats, but it all ends…well, I suppose.
In fact, the end is pretty ambiguous. You think it ends well, but when you really consider it, you can no longer be sure. The attitude of the Bigfeet towards the cats seems to change a little and Mara still has to struggle with her fears and doubts, but there is no immediate threat to the cats’ survival in Nizamuddin. It seems like a happy ending, but I highly doubt it. There’s no end to danger in the lives of street animals and the saga of the cats of Nizamuddin is endlessly fascinating. If Roy ever decides to come out with a sequel, I will be one of the first in line to buy it. Even flipping through the book affords one such pleasure. The illustrations by Prabha Mallya are beautiful and they fit in exactly with how you imagine the characters would look like.
While I loved the book, there were some things that bothered me. One was the names of the cats, such as Southpaw, Abol and Tabol, Qawwali, Affit and Davit. These are human words and I’m not entirely sure how they fit into cat vocabulary, especially since the cats refer to the humans as ‘Bigfeet’. That last detail, then seems like a superficial touch, which exists merely to add a touch of the ‘cute’ to the story.
Nevertheless, this is a book that I will hold on to – the story is worth visiting again and the illustrations, like I said before, take the experience to whole other level.